Food: Truly colorblind glue
As I walked the streets in the Asian part of Rome near Termini Station, the Asian stores were mostly empty, perhaps as a result of COVID but I cannot say as I’ve not seen the streets in normal times. Still, what was striking was the gradual demographic change and mixture of skin tones darkening the further away I walked from the popular city center. Most paid little to no attention to me since I hoped I didn’t have a tourist air about me. Probably, though, it helped that I was not white.
There have been a handful of times in my life when I have felt thankful that my Asian face is what it is. That day was another time to add to my list.
As I walked with a smile on my face, I wondered at the recent comments and questions I had read posted on social media about racism in Italy. While I am aware that certain social media platforms are predominantly white, I am still amazed when I read people’s denial of race struggles in the world.
For example, the U.S. is facing a massive increase in crimes against Asian people yet no one wants to call them hate crimes. Instead, many want to blame it on mental illness for those who are committing these crimes, which obviously does need to be addressed as another social and systemic issue, but the fact is that Asians are being targeted more than ever for whatever reason—though I think there is no question as to who or where it started in 2020.
However, as I walked the streets of Rome, in a part of town mostly void of white Italians, I found myself feeling safe. I found myself comfortable. I found myself a part of the community of people of color walking about, and I felt proud to acknowledge it.
I also felt thankful that I was not living in a place where I would have to worry about my safety walking around.
More importantly, though, I was thankful that I was not white; that I did not carry myself as I imagined a white person would walking past Asian restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores, etc. I did not view the space as them being less-than or worse-off than my privileged way of life. Instead, I felt connected and as if I could hear my heritage finally speaking out to me to own what is mine and to accept that I belong in these spaces just as much as someone who speaks or knows the culture as their own. For DNA carries more than just our genetic makeup but also the whispers of our ancestors.
As I sat to eat a Korean meal on my own, an act I rarely do since I hate eating alone, I decided not to distract myself with my phone or pretend as if I had something to do to try to lessen a discomfort for dining as one. Instead, I chose to focus on the flavors, the bitefuls of sour and spicy mixing in my mouth. I imagined myself as a child in Korea first eating a bowl of rice or tasting the complexity of kimchi. I imagined I could hear the smile in my omma's voice as she encouraged me to take another bite. It was in this mindful space that I could appreciate that somehow against all odds, I had come to love the food of my motherland.
I sat eating as if I had always known Korean food, as if it was something I had always eaten and was just missing while living abroad. The cook, and probably owner, of the restaurant asked me if I was Korean in Korean. I replied in English, “I am, but American.” She nodded with a smile and accepted my admittance.
Food always serves as a way of bonding. The “breaking of bread” has long been used as a way of uniting people.
In that restaurant there were people of all skin tones enjoying the same kind of food. In that space, we all had something in common. Isn’t it strange then, once we go back outside we are again defined by the color of our skin? When we go our separate ways, once again I will be seen as Asian, and they by whatever nationality they seem to look; yet, none of us will know that on the inside, we may be of all different colors.
But, in that space, in that city, in that moment, I felt as if my outside and my inside were the same—even if it was brief.
Image: Cathy Lu